Tag Archives: Education

Voting With My Feet (An Open Letter to Nicky Morgan)

Dear Ms Morgan

I have three units (sorry, children) currently at primary school. Actually, they’re at a primary academy, since our Local Authority withdrew its education function five years ago and forced a wholesale conversion throughout the borough.

It’s a good one, I’ll give you that. We have a dedicated and visionary head, who’s doing Good Things from a business perspective while, crucially, remembering that her stock in trade is the lives and hopes of several hundred small people. Of course she’s bound by the double-entry book keeping of finance and performance figures, but she manages to give the impression that remembering the names of the children in her care and turning up to sing in Assembly matter just as much.

I was a parent governor for a while, approached in my triple capacity as church member, commercial lawyer and, most importantly, person in a cagoule at the coal-face of the playground and the classroom door. It was hard work: not just the meetings, but the rightly rigorous training too, but it was also an honour to do it and I was disappointed when a potential conflict of interest meant I had to step down.

It sounds like the chances of me doing it again are minimal, since you’ve announced that mandatory parent governors are to be scrapped in favour of skilled individuals (the two, apparently, being mutually exclusive). Thankfully, though, you’ve reassured us parents that we won’t be silenced: we will still be “consulted” when the school is making decisions, and, after all, we can still “vote with our feet” if we’re not happy.

I agree with you that the present system isn’t perfect. If the parent governors are voted for, they too often tend to be those who win a popularity contest. If they’re co-opted,  it’s usually because they’re the conspicuous, conscientious type who look like they might have a particular skill and the wherewithal to make meetings. Parent governors aren’t representative, but they are, crucially parents. They anchor the governing body to what should always be the primary consideration: the experiences of the children who attend the school, not the relative position on a performance table.

As for “consultation”, I will give you the benefit of the doubt and accept that you wholeheartedly believe this is a functional and democratic way of engaging the families of children at school. Sadly, experience shows that it is no such thing. On the one hand, most parents are either too busy or too apathetic to give a shit. When we converted to an academy, the consultation process involved a handful of responses. Perhaps it’s natural, since people see consultations elsewhere on matters that concern them – from planning applications to cuts to local services – providing little more than a fig leaf before the process continues in line with the decision makers’ wishes. Perhaps it’s just a sign of increasing individualism. Have you tried getting people involved in a local initiative recently, Ms Morgan?

The notion of voting with our feet as the ultimate veto is entirely of a piece with this notion of choice in education. The thing is, even as a sharp-elbowed, well-informed, middle-class mother with oodles of options, I don’t really want choice. Most of us don’t. We want our children to go to their local school, with the children who live around them, in the community to which they belong. We want our children to scramble into a little learning and a whole lot of socialisation; to acquire skills and knowledge and ambition that will steer them as they grow older, not forced tall and pale like so many little sticks of rhubarb ready to be judged at an allotment show.

We don’t want our children to go to the best school, we want them to do their best at their school. We don’t want to sit, each August, in front of a data dashboard of outputs of all the local educational establishments deciding where little Philomena will go in September. These are our children, not the supplier of our electricity or the insurance we buy for our car. We want to commit to schools and see our children grow and flourish where they are, not uproot them to pot them on in some whimsical pursuit of perfection.

And, of course, “voting with our feet” isn’t as easy as it sounds. Where I live, there is no secondary school within safe walking distance, which means free transport has to be provided. The council recently decided that this free transport would only be available to the school which is infinitesimally nearer than that to which 99% of children have gone and continue to go since…well, forever. That it’s woefully undersubscribed and serially failing is, I am sure, a coincidence, although it does mean that the council’s spend on secondary school transport is effectively minimal – demand for that school is met by a daily taxi, while parents spend £500/year to send their child off with their friends on the same fleet of buses that have always run. Precious little choice, however, if you can’t find the cash.

Please stop and think. Please listen. Not everyone who is complaining about the direction of education policy in this country is a refusenik who fails to see any benefits in your proposed changes. I think encouraging entrepreneurialism in schools is a good idea. Helping them capitalise on their assets in a sustainable manner makes sense. But education cannot and must never be turned into an entirely free market.This isn’t creating a level field. It’s allowing a lucky few to build a Noah’s Ark and leaving the rest to deal with the flood as best they can.

HeadInBook

Dog’s Breakfast

The Gove asked
The Wilshaw, and
The Wilshaw asked
The Inspectorate
“Could we have school readiness
by age of five, Ofsted?”

The Wilshaw asked
The Inspectorate,
The Inspectorate said
“Certainly,
I’ll go and tell
The Telegraph
Before it goes to bed”

The Inspectorate,
Observed
And he went and told
The Telegraph:
“We’re going for school readiness
by age of five”, he said.

The Telegraph
Said sleepily
“You’d better tell
His Majesty
That many people nowadays
Like children-led
Instead.”

The Inspectorate
Said, “Fancy!”
And went to
His Majesty.
He curtsied to the Wilshaw, and
He turned a little red:
“Excuse me,
Your Majesty,
For taking of
The liberty,
But other ways can work, if
They’re
Really
Children-led.”

The Wilshaw said
“Oh!”
And turned to
The Gove:
“Talking of school readiness by
age of five; Ofsted
Says many people
Think that
Children-led
Is nicer.
Would you like to try a little
Children-led
Instead?”

The Gove said,
“Bother!”
And then he said,
“Oh, dear me!”
The Gove sobbed, “Oh, deary me!”
And went back to bed.
“Nobody,”
He whimpered,
“Could call me
A nursery man;
I only want
A little bit
Of school readiness
By age of five, Ofsted!”

The Wilshaw said,
“There, there!”
And went to
The Inspectorate.
The Inspectorate
Said, “There, there!”
And went to the shed.
The Telegraph said,
“There, there!
I didn’t really
Mean it;
Here’s headlines for his hobby horse
“school readiness”, Ofsted”.

The Wilshaw took
The headline
And brought it to
His Majesty;
The Gove said,
“Headline, eh?”
And bounced out of bed.
“Nobody,” he said,
As he binned the
Guardian,
“Nobody,” he said,
As he talked down
The evidence,
“Nobody,
“My darling,
Could call me
A nursery man—
BUT
I do like a little bit of school-readiness, Ofsted!”

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10741986/Ofsted-all-parents-should-get-a-checklist-telling-them-how-to-raise-their-children.html

With enormous apologies to A.A. Milne

The unlevel playing fields of England

The most oversubscribed primary school in our area (let’s call it school X) is in the loveliest, leafiest area of town. By some strange coincidence, it’s the same area where house prices and average incomes are highest too. It’s an unspoken assumption that it is the school to send your children too, and yet it doesn’t do all that brilliantly, sailing along at fair-to-middling, even while its waiting lists and estate agent cachet grow. Curiously, there’s no noticeable slump into delinquency and unemployability among its former pupils when they reach adulthood. It’s almost as if school alone doesn’t determine a child’s outcome in life.

Had we made the connection between having a baby and ultimately having a schoolchild which other, better-adjusted, adults do when making decisions about where to live, it’s probably fair to say that we’d now be among the cohort of parents who grumble at the standards while simultaneously reassuring ourselves we are doing the best by our children. Instead, we stumbled quite by chance into an unfashionable primary, which isn’t perfect, but which external bodies seem to think is pretty good. Most importantly, our children (who are still only 6 and 8) are happy, feel secure and enjoy going there. And yet, the chances of friends moving their children from school X to ours are next to zero. The thought of those who educate privately doing so is laughable.

I didn’t, until recently, twig quite how much of a social impact schools have. I failed to appreciate fully that choosing a school would not necessarily involve prioritising educational achievement over the connections children will form, the interpersonal skillsets they will develop. I can smugly congratulate myself that my children (through no real planning of my own) interact with others from a wide variety of backgrounds, but it doesn’t stop me blinking when they come out with things they’d not have met elsewhere yet. It is, objectively A Good Thing. – but I’m enough of a hypocrite that it sometimes makes me wonder whether I’m doing absolutely the best thing by them.

The next educational hurdle for my group of friends is secondary school. Locally, post-11 education is undergoing upheaval, making decisions and planning difficult. My inadvertent smugness is evaporating in front of the realistic possibilities: will a dreamy, academic boy who doesn’t speak football thrive in a failing new academy which doesn’t get many of its youngsters, largely from challenging backgrounds, through GCSE? If we could afford it, I’m forced to admit to myself, I’d send him to one of the excellent fee-paying schools nearby. Perhaps fortunately for my principles, perhaps unfortunately for him, finances forbid it.

But wait! My heartache might be in vain! Michael Gove has spoken today at the London Academy of Excellence. One of his points, surely intentionally, has attracted immediate attention – but might be the answer to my prayers:

My ambition for our education system is simple – when you visit a school in England standards are so high all round that you should not be able to tell whether it’s in the state sector or a fee paying independent.

Hurray for Michael Gove. I don’t need to worry any more on behalf of my own children, and those in our town, that the new academy, unable in a few years’ time in a more competitive world, to raise extra funds from parents in its deprived local area, will be forced to recruit unqualified, untrained teachers with no real specialist knowledge in the subjects they teach. I don’t need to fret that the funding structure down the line will mean they will only be able to afford cheaper exam entrances, or be forced to focus their attention on getting the majority through vocational training at the expense of the academic few who could have gone on to Uni. Home influences will cease to drag on young people’s ambition, drive and ability to capitalise on the education they receive. The magical emphasis on ‘standards’ will knock out any discrepancy in class sizes, in calibre of teaching, in quantity and quality of resource, amenity and extra-curricular activity. My children, and their peers, will somehow, miraculously, get for free the education which would cost £15k per annum down the road.

It is rubbish, and it is an insult. People who are able to exercise choice in their children’s education (and I am, of course, among them) do so for reason and for benefit. Whether it’s opting for the leafy, lovely primary where no-one betrays a local accent, or the stellar-performing public school which promises a brace of results and a bulging address book, education in this country is both a market and a commodity. And it almost always involves cash.

Fee-paying schools capitalise on the natural desire of parents to further their children’s chances in life. Whether you approve of this or not, they generally achieve their aim very well – but to suggest that this success has nothing at all to do with money, both at school and at home, is disingenuous. Gove’s announcement today, along with much of the thrust of his education policy, seems to insist that schools operate in a vacuum; that the difference in results and output is entirely down to method. Saying that this approach is wrong is not to consign those who start without home advantages to failure. It’s to demand that they be given the equivalent resources to compete. That will never be accomplished by insisting on ‘standards’ alone, but rather by being honest about what we consider success – and honest about what it costs.

Another Brick…

I’m not a teacher, though I am daughter, niece, sister in law and friend to many who are. Not to mention being mother of two primary age children, with another in the wings. I think it’s probably fair to say that I take a greater than average interest in education. Nonetheless, I am very clear that I am Not A Teacher. To me, one of the most important aspects of Not Being A Teacher is resisting the urge to assume that because I’ve looked after and worked with children, read lots of articles, and indeed went to school myself, I have a degree of expertise equivalent to a professional. It’s an urge which many commentators and politicians feel, it seems, and which they resist with varying degrees of effort and success.

The teaching profession and school pupils seem to be facing an unprecedented level of beleagurement. A prolonged hokey-cokey over the rebranding of GCSEs. Schools toppling like dominoes into academy status. Money being found from somewhere for free schools, while a baby boom lifts the cap on infant class sizes and leads to children being taught in temporary accommodation or shifts or both. EYFS settings becoming more formalised so that children are in a less play-based environment even at the outset of their education, and a radical overhaul of the national curriculum. Schools being touted as ideal childcare provision for working parents who need someone to look after their children before and after school and even through the night.

Today, the latest proposal: national rankings for children leaving primary school. Each child will be slotted into a decile, so they (or their parents/schools) know precisely where they stand next to their peers.

I’ll be honest, here. I don’t like the idea of it. I like the idea of it as much as I would like, say, a scorpion in the toe of my shoe. However, as with all the other apparently pointless-at-best proposals, in my capacity of Not Being A Teacher, I am willing to accept that my instinct may be wrong. Perhaps there is good, solid research and evidence that this will improve standards and, contrary to the naysayers, won’t consign the bottom few bands to a bin marked “failure” while those at the top stroll cockily into secondary school, secure that they are The Best. There may be, but we’re not being shown it, just as there’s been little evidence for any of the proposals to date other than a kind of scrapbook of cherry-picked, context-free Best Bits from around the world.

I know that we are to be wary of anecdata, but my fondest and most abiding memory of my (small, Catholic, not at all posh) primary school is spending Friday afternoons learning embroidery with our headmistress, who was a nun, while the boys did football. The end of my last year involved several weeks devising Junior Showtime, a sketch show written and performed by the leavers. We played, and had fun, and were children at the end of the first stage of our lives, not sitting tests and being branded with a figure of attainment before moving onto comprehensive. We all did pretty well, though granted the embroidery was a bit of an anachronism.

I can’t unpick each new education proposal because I don’t have the expertise to do so, but I am conscious of a growing sadness that “childhood” is being eroded. Just as the Jacobeans et al painted their heirs in stiff miniaturised ruffs and farthingales, standing with swords and ringlets as diminutive grown-ups, so we are in danger of losing the idea that childhood is anything other than adulthood in waiting. Ranking and testing and grading at very early ages runs the risk of painting our own children into a frame from which they may well struggle to escape.

When I was pregnant for the first time, I couldn’t quite believe that this baby would grow without me needing to do something. My toddler pulls tiny plants up to see how they’re growing, frankly incredulous that a small seed, soil, water and sunshine will accomplish anything without his assistance. I get a similar feeling seeing interference in education, and when it’s combined with the recurring themes of ensuring children are made as little of a hindrance to their parents’ employment as possible and the chimeric aim of producing “globally competitive” workers, I am left wondering where attention to young people’s needs and welfare is to be found. We have a large body of expert, dedicated and committed education professionals in this country. Would it be so very difficult to work collaboratively with them rather than engaging in scorched earth tactics which are poisoning the very ground in which our children are trying to grow?